Sophisticated consumers are the curse and the blessing of natural products companies.
A blessing because they're savvy. They educate themselves about products. They ask questions. They're not about to fall for Madison Avenue hype and glitz. They want to know why they should spend their money on something before they plunk down their cash. That's good for companies that stress the integrity of the products they make and sell.
But here's the rub: How do they get those savvy customers to try—and buy—their products, particularly when many companies are small, maybe new, and don't have the big advertising budgets and other resources to spread the word?
A handful of natural products companies are turning to viral marketing, where consumers use websites or e-mail to pass on targeted marketing messages to other sites and users.
"Mass advertising is dying," trendwatching.com says on its website. "Experienced consumers couldn't care less about commercials, ads, banners and other fancy wording and imagery that is forced upon them."
A University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communications study found that word of mouth—that old-school, pre-online method—is critical to consumers. Advice from family and friends is used by 43.7 percent of consumers. More than 23 percent follow advice from co-workers, according to the study. When purchasing personal care or household products, for example, 21 percent relied on advice from family and friends, compared to 13 percent who relied on newspaper advertising.
Randy Frank Leeds, senior vice president-North America for 7th Chamber Media, an international firm that launched viral marketing services in 2000 and has clients such as Chevrolet in Europe, calls the naturals industry a perfect candidate for viral marketing.
"The incredible interest in the world of green and organic makes reaching out to blogs and sites with a targeted message a valuable tool to reach these smart, savvy consumers," says Leeds, who was a publisher at Organic Gardening magazine and associate publisher at Women's Health magazine before joining 7th Chamber. "The 'send to a friend' aspect is exactly the environment that works to create trust and value for an advertiser in today's cynical culture. The natural products industry prides itself on being honest, clean and clear in its communications."
Leeds sees a huge potential for attracting new customers for naturals companies that use viral marketing strategies. But the industry can be a little earnest at times, and Leeds emphasizes that the most successful viral marketing campaigns "must be delivered simply in an interesting, funny, irreverent way to get the attention of this large pool of consumers. The creative is a key element."
Trendwatching.com touts the value of a sort of combination of viral marketing and tryvertising by taking tryvertising online "where millions of consumers are telling other consumers about their real, tried-and-true experiences with goods and services, helping would-be customers to vicariously try out anything from kitchen appliances to financial services." Think iTunes 30-second clips of songs, Amazon.com's "search inside" feature that lets customers read a book's first page and check out customer reviews. According to Trendwatching.com, "It's claimed 80 percent of consumers will try tryvertising-placed products. Of those, 25 percent will buy the product at least once. Many will continue to use the product for a longer period if they have had a positive introductory sampling experience."
In July, Pure Zing, web publisher of PureZing.com, an online directory of natural product reviews, launched i-tryit, which offers consumers prescreened natural products for half-price if they agree to write a review of the product.
"When you can smell a product, put on the hand lotion, taste the food … it's almost as if the consumer is standing at a trade show and experiencing it," says Pure Zing CEO Page Remick. The customer reviews "convey the experience firsthand. That's the trigger. It's like your neighbor telling you about a product."
Remick says i-tryit currently has 50 supplier participants. "Nobody was doing this online. We decided: Let's be a place where everyone can come online and shop for truly organic products." Remick says the target customers are women age 24 to 60. "That's our core. They talk. They share. They want to know what people think.
"Natural and organic consumers ask more questions. They're not mindless robots. They read labels. They're more adventurous." And, she points out, particularly in the current economic climate, they don't have to spend a lot of money on a product they know nothing about.
Natural products companies that can't afford to spend a lot on advertising or do their own promotional campaigns benefit from i-tryit, Remick says. They get potential new customers and also have a forum to interact with other companies.
EcoDiscoveries, which makes natural cleaning products, was one of Pure Zing's first customers. The impartial reviews of the products on PureZing.com "added a lot of legitimacy," says EcoDiscoveries National Sales Manager Tom Schneider. As a result of the reviews, "We were getting a lot of inquiries on our website asking if we had samples."
Signing on with i-tryit "seemed like a natural progression. It made a lot of business sense."
The company offers its products half-price through i-tryit. "We're a small company. We can't afford a $250,000 ad in Southern Living magazine. Our best results are coming from viral advertising and the Internet. It's not the least expensive, but it's the best bang for the buck."
Ken Lankin, owner of Dr. Lankin's Specialty Foods, which is offering its natural-flavor roasted almonds for half price on i-tryit, says the 24/7 aspect of the Internet is cost- and time-effective. He's especially pleased with what he says are well-written and accurate reviews from customers who have tried the almonds.
So far, Remick is also pleased with the results. The company experimented with making viral free giveaway offers to blog visitors. Ordinarily, the blog attracted five to 10 people a day to read and make comments. But when i-tryit launched a daily viral natural product giveaway contest, an average of 80 people a day posted comments and reviews on the blog. On its best-performing day, 180 people visited the site to win a natural toffee candy and blog about it.
Jane Hoback is a Denver-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 8/p. 12,14